NEW YORK Amazon.com has said it would change its systems after it remotely deleted Kindle editions of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from the devices of customers after discovering they had been offered for sale illegally. The actions, which happened on Friday, have caused a furor in the U.S. (and on Twitter), where Amazon has inevitably been compared to Orwell’s all-seeing Big Brother.
It was initially believed that Amazon had taken the books back after pressure from the rights-holder, which had changed its mind. But the online retailer said the books were uploaded by a publisher, reported to be MobileReference, which did not have the rights and so they were deleted. “We removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers’ devices, and refunded customers,” spokesman Drew Herdener said.
It is not the first time Amazon has removed titles that were offered via Kindle in breach of copyright and sold illegally through its store. Other examples include pirated copies of Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer, Harry Potter books and the works of novelist Ayn Rand. But Amazon’s actions have caused a backlash, with customers learning that when they purchase a book using Kindle they do not necessarily own it for life. One wrote on Amazon.com’s forum: “When I buy a book, I own it. Today I find that when I ‘buy’ a Kindle book, I am leasing it and it is subject to recall by the issuer.” One Kindle user even had his notes on the book removed: Justin Gawronski, a 17-year-old from the Detroit area, was reading 1984 on his Kindle for a summer assignment and lost all his notes and annotations when the file vanished. “They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work,” he is reported to have said.
However, the New York Times reported that Amazon’s actions were at odds with its published terms of service agreement for the Kindle that does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a “permanent copy of the applicable digital content.” Retailers of physical goods cannot, of course, force their way into a customer’s home to take back a purchase, no matter how bootlegged it turns out to be. Yet Amazon appears to maintain a unique tether to the digital content it sells for the Kindle, the NYT noted.
Herdener said the company would now be altering its policy so that it could block illegal copies, but not take back copies innocently downloaded by customers. “We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers’ devices in these circumstances,” he said.